From her poem, “White Light (After Sonya Levien),” from “Fragments from the Fire: the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911,” which won the Walt Whitman Award in 1986.
It's not easy to teach us union.
Garment girls shift like sand, start
too young in the trade, wait for
Prince Charming to take em away.
When I arrived from Russia
my cheeks like apples. And look now!
But talk about a dreaming fool!
Me, thirteen in the Golden Land
longing to work at Life and Love.
Be what you call a builder of bridges.
I'd go back, show all Moscow
a great American lady.
My first position: feeding kerchiefs
to machine. First English sentence:
"Watch your needle -- 3,000 stitches
A minute." I was some swift kid in
those days: seventy-two-hundred
an hour, eighty-six-thousand pieces
A day, four dollars in the pay
envelope -- and that the busy season.
For three months my pay was bread.
I yearned to earn wages, save my
little sister's passage, I was so
lonely in America. Soon like the rest
I grieved at my machine, swore I'd
marry any old man just to get out.
One by one the others left to marry
And returned to Triangle. I saw
my future in a white heat light
no dreams could soften.
Thanks to the folks at Friday’s Folklore for sharing this poem; click here to subscribe.
DC LABORFEST 2022